Farm Equipment Zen: Part 2

I talked too much about field work in my last post. What I really wanted to talk about was the best job I ever had; mowing rows.

One of the lowest of the shit jobs on a Christmas tree plantation is mowing. Most folks hated it but it needed to be done. Nor could it be done with “upscale” equipment. Particularly for larger trees, the rows were too narrow for even the smallest “ride on it” tractor. (Remember, this is a field… not a lawn. “Garden” tractors need not apply.) Thus everything was done on foot. As a newbie, I assumed I’d hate it mowing too.

Enter the machine I bonded with. A big fat honkin’ Gravely “walk behind tractor”. This was a two wheeled behemoth with a hefty engine up front, a big brush hog disk in front of that, and almost comically, handlebars at the back. I’d fire up this monster (electric start!), engage the PTO for the brush hog (with which to smite everything before me), and (after taking a deep breath) engage the wheels. The beast would lurch into action and lumber over, around, between, across, and through anything. My job was to hang on for dear life and “steer”.

When I first met the Gravely I had my doubts. Strapping handlebars from a Huffy onto a Buick’s engine block seemed like While E. Coyote logic. Never mind the fact that the front was a 4′ woodchipper of doom mutilating everything in sight, it was getting dragged into the next county that worried me.

Shockingly, the machine worked flawlessly! The monster chewed through anything in front of it without hesitation. (Including, on occasion, entire trees.) Stalling was utterly out of the question. Electrical shorts, clogged air filters, and the like were inconceivable. The gas tank was huge. The tires never went flat. It was as subtle as a hammer and built like a wheeled anvil. Once I got used to it I found it a pleasure to operate. I still miss that machine. They don’t make them anymore and I couldn’t afford one if they did.

Other guys on the crew hated the machine. They preferred little bicycle tired brush mowers that were faster, sleeker, and lighter. From my point of view they seemed to spend more time broke than running. Like the tortoise and the hare, I could always catch up and surpass them by plodding along with my unstoppable wheeled force of nature. I got the hang of sweet talking the critter up and down the rows without a hint of drama. From then on it was all production all the time. You had to talk its language. It was big enough that you could nudge it but only that. If you fought it, you’d lose.

I’d run it all day long. I always ended smiling.

It was a simple stupid job. Not only could a monkey do it, but a monkey should rightfully get bored doing it. Not me. It became a mantra. Fire up the monster, point it in the right direction and kill everything in your path, when one row was done there was always another one waiting. When the sun sets the day is done. Service it and park for the night. Show up at dawn the next day. Lather rinse repeat.

I grew to love my job.

Trudging up and down rows was immensely relaxing. The universe was a giant Japanese rock garden and I was a immense rake; bringing order to chaos. I was at peace. Sometimes I sang.

Everyone else hated mowing. It was hot and dusty and boring. I never got bored. I have no idea why.

Sometimes the speedier mowers would nuke a hornet’s nest and everyone had to run for their life. The job was so repetitive that nasty stings on a sunburned arm was a “change of pace”. I, moving slower, usually saw the nest before things got crazy. Once, because I felt like it, I spied a largish hornets nest and attacked. I lumbered up and ground their volley ball sized Death Star clear to topsoil leaving a cloud of angry by very battered insects wondering what the hell had just happened. I somehow reversed the mighty beast and safely got out of there without a scratch. Even moving at it’s usual slow deliberative pace, the hornets were at a loss. Other guys in the crew could run like the wind yet they got stung all the time. Not me. I marched around like a tank and was untouched. The crew was mystified. I was not. Why should I run?

Me and the machine were one. Hornets were no match for us.

I don’t know why I didn’t get bored. I can’t sit through a half hour of TV but I could plod with heavy boots though a field hour after hour. Really? Earplugs jammed in my ears meant no music. Flying debris meant I was covered from head to toe in brush, grass, and dust. Hot sun meant sunburns. It didn’t seem to matter. I was content.

I strapped a jug of ice water to the hood and that kept me from overheating. The machine, for it’s part, was so strongly built that it never overheated. Plenty of water and a couple sandwiches for lunch and I became a happy human conveyor belt. That’s all I wanted. I’d run all day without complaining. Never bored. Never wondering “is this pointless or what”? Nope. I was totally happy. Me and that big stupid mower. I had a foolish smile all day long. I still don’t get it.

It was the best job I’ve ever had.


P.S. Because this is the Internet, someone is going to point out that appropriate equipment does exist to process Christmas trees in effortless, highly mechanized, debt laden splendor. While technically true, the best “equipment” at the time for any Christmas tree operation smaller than “huge” was a handful of flannel clad workers with strong backs. I wouldn’t be surprised if that remains true today. Though I don’t know how hard it is in our modern world to find folks who’ll do the job anymore. Lack of guys who’ll go into a trance given the right mower might have driven newer (and lamer!) technology.

About Adaptive Curmudgeon

I will neither confirm nor deny that I actually exist.
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15 Responses to Farm Equipment Zen: Part 2

  1. I remember the old Gravely’s. We had one, but I was never big enough to run it. That was one kick ass machine.

  2. ZerCool says:

    My brother in law farms with a two-wheel tractor. He loves the thing. Having seen it in operation I definitely see where it has advantages. And they are readily available, just google (oddly enough) “two wheeled tractors”. Not horridly expensive but the implements add up.

  3. Brick says:

    I mowed yards for a couple of summers while in school. I loved it. I think it was the satisfaction that came with being able to see the fruits of my labor so clearly. We used 40, 50, and 60 inch Gravely walk-behind mowers with the Huffy-type controls. I may or may not have tried to climb a tree trunk with one.

  4. ILTim says:

    I searched for photos to get a visual of this fantastic contraption. What I found instead has diverted entirely too much time…. a one-wheeled tractor! With videos of the working prototypes.

  5. NEO says:

    Always wanted one of those, couldn’t afford it though. Had to settle for the rider dad made, 37 English Ford engine and trans, backed by the trans from a early 50s Dodge truck, cut down Model A rear end, with kingpins from a 46 GMC 1 Ton, and a homemade 5 foot deck. Much the same result except road gear was about 20 mph. Loved that machine but it was never quite right after we had to rebuild a Dodge V8 distributor to run backwards after the EF one died. Ended up about the size of the Ford on your masthead, but with a cargo box the size of a CJ-5.

    Good post, brought back lots of good times.

  6. Larry Geiger says:

    The toxic fumes belching from the aforementioned behemoth killed all insects on contact. A small benefit of a mowing machine with a real engine. My brother mowed groves with a Gravely. Sometimes riding the sulky and sometimes walking. Here in the south it was the giant banana spiders not hornets.

    He claims that once, as he turned quickly around a tree the Banana Spider web actually threw him off the Gravely. Some of us think it was actually the spider climbing up his face that caused him to fall off and run screaming through the grove. Of course the good old Gravely just kept on going and was eventually stopped by a large antebellum Live Oak tree.

  7. Will Beck says:

    Love this post. I’ve said it more than once, I do my best thinking on (or behind) a mower. I too, am familiar with the walk-behind Gravely, and operated a ’58 model for years around the family place. Unfortunately, the six-volt battery was often dead, and that meant cranking it by hand. One foot on the tire, both hands on the rope and HEAVE!

    Thanks, Team Gravely alumni

  8. p kerit says:

    I have an old Gravely and yes it will chew up anything. I have a sulky for it too. Want it?

  9. Doubletrouble says:

    A friend has a Gravely, with the tiller, snowblower, & who knows what else for attachments.
    It’s a beautiful piece of almost solid metal that does the job. Perfectly.
    I am insanely envious.

  10. richardcraver says:

    My dad has one of the old Gravely 7.6’s from the early 1970’s era, it is on permanent loan to one of his brothers at his homesite. This one had the looong stroke cast iron engine, not the later Kohler powered jobs. I learned a good strong follow-thru on the start strap was in order, if you made the mistake of thinking it would continue to spin just because you got it turning, it would kick back and throw adolescent boys across the hood.
    Somewhere in the late 80’s he got a Troybilt tiller, then in the 90’s a John-Deere 790 with a bushhog deck and ‘proper’ turning plow; and the Gravely fell into disuse. His brother on the other hand was clearing a wooded area to build a small rent house and woodworking shop, he has since retired and is now building stage 2 of the former rental house into his retirement home. Forty years later the old Gravely is still stroking along, doing landscaping, digging tree holes with the rotary plow on a long shaft, tilling a garden spot, bushhogging the woods back into submission, just like when it was new.

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